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'King's Speech,' 'Social Network,' lead Oscar race

Posted 8:38am on Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2011

The King’s Speech, a drama about Britain’s King George VI and his struggles with a speech impediment, grabbed hold of the crown at Tuesday morning’s Oscar nominations, earning 12 nods, including Best Picture, Director, and Actor (Colin Firth). For months, The Social Network has been the presumptive front-runner for Best Picture. But with The King’s Speech performing well at the box office ($57 million and counting), and starting to earn a few awards of its own (it won the Producer’s Guild top prize over the weekend), many now wonder if it’s the more appealing, warm-hearted alternative to the sometimes icy and cynical The Social Network.

Which isn’t to entirely discount "the Facebook movie," which picked up a perfectly respectable eight nominations, including Best Picture, Director and Actor (Jesse Eisenberg). (Of the nods it was expected to earn, only supporting actor Andrew Garfield came up short). This sets up what should be one of the more heated Oscar races in recent memory. Don’t be surprised if The King’s Speech and The Social Network split the difference, with the former winning Best Picture and the latter taking Best Director.

The other films that performed well on Tuesday included True Grit (10 nominations), making a much-deserved recovery after it was shut out at the Golden Globes), Inception (eight), The Fighter (seven), Black Swan (five), and Toy Story 3 (five). All of these films were nominated for Best Picture. The remaining slots went to 127 Hours, The Kids Are All Right and Winter’s Bone -- all widely expected nominations. The only movie that didn’t make the cut that many thought would was Ben Affleck’s thriller The Town. (It settled for a single nomination, for Jeremy Renner in Best Supporting Actor).

Despite the avalanche of awards shows and nomination slates leading up to Tuesday’s announcements, the Academy did well to throw in a few curveballs at us. Javier Bardem was considered a longshot for a Best Actor nomination for the tough-to-watch Mexican drama Biutiful, but he made the cut alongside Firth, Eisenberg, James Franco (127 Hours) and Jeff Bridges (True Grit). (Biutiful was also nominated for Best Foreign Language Film.) Most people think the prize is Firth’s to lose, but I’m loath to completely dismiss Eisenberg, whose turn as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg represented one of those once-in-a-lifetime marriages of actor and role.

The Best Actress list was a familiar one, with front-runners Natalie Portman (Black Swan) and Annette Bening (The Kids Are All Right) joined by Nicole Kidman (Rabbit Hole), Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone) and Michelle Williams (Blue Valentine). Williams did nose out the likes of Julianne Moore (The Kids Are All Right) and Lesley Manville (Another Year), but the nomination wasn’t all that much of a surprise. Give the early edge to Portman, but if older voters decide the four-times-nominated Bening is overdue, you could be looking at an upset.

The biggest surprise of the day, however, could be found in the Best Supporting Actor category, where indie stalwart John Hawkes manages to get a mention for his creepy work in Winter’s Bone. It’s a testament to how much this scrappy little movie is respected that it earned four nominations.

That probably won't translate into a victory: Christian Bale is considered a sure-thing for Best Supporting Actor for The Fighter. (The other nominees are Renner, The King’s Speech’s Geoffrey Rush and The Kids Are All Right’s Mark Ruffalo.)

However the other front-runner from The Fighter, Melissa Leo, may have an uphill battle to take the Best Supporting Actress Oscar. That’s because she’s facing off against Hailee Steinfeld, the wonderful young actress from True Grit, who was inexplicably snubbed by the Golden Globes, and the dark-horse candidate, Jacki Weaver, so menacing as the crime-boss-mother-from-hell in Animal Kingdom. (The other nominees are The Fighter’s Amy Adams and The King’s Speech’s Helena Bonham Carter.) This might just end up being the most unpredictable major race on Oscar night.

The best part of the Oscar nominations is trying to figure out who got snubbed, though this year there aren’t many folks in Hollywood who should be crying into their Corn Flakes. Director Christopher Nolan, foolishly ignored for The Dark Knight, was ignored yet again for Inception -- he’s rapidly turning into the Steven Spielberg of his generation, the master technician and box office giant who never quite gets Academy love. (Note to Nolan: Make a really somber drama set during World War II and you’ll be golden.) The much-loved Tangled was shut out of the Best Animated Film category, where the three nominations went to Toy Story 3, How to Train Your Dragon and the French film The Illusionist. (Ah, those arcane Oscars rules: Not enough animated films were released in 2010 to expand the category to five nominations.)

And while it performed well, Black Swan didn’t perform that well -- it was left out of the screenplay, make-up and costume categories. That could mean Hollywood’s older and more conservative voters find the film a little too extreme for their liking.

This marked the second year that the Oscars named 10 Best Picture finalists, as opposed to the five nominees that were the standard for decades -- and it increasingly seems like the best decision the Academy had made in ages. It allows the spotlight to shine on worthy titles like Winter's Bone and The Kids Are All Right, films that would have found little traction in past years. Sure a critic can always complain -- what's with the complete shut-out of Roman Polanski's gorgeously moody thriller The Ghost Writer? -- but it wouldn't be the Oscars if it wasn't at least a little bit controversial. Far more important is that 10 nominees are more likely to give us all something root for come Oscar night. (Go Toy Story 3!)

The Oscars ceremony will be televised on ABC on Feb. 27.

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